When nursing babies with a breast or bottle, they may naturally poke out their tongues. And naturally, some parents are concerned about this behavior. This is known as the tongue thrust reflex which is normal in young infants and usually nothing to worry about. But if your son or daughter continues to poke out his or her tongue, or show other signs of tongue thrust with age, it could be an early warning sign of dental problems.
What Is Baby Tongue Thrust?
Tongue thrust, found in infants, toddlers and young children, is associated with several different behaviors and conditions. Infant tongue thrust is a natural reflex that occurs when something touches a baby's lips, according to Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD of Missouri Families.org. The baby's tongue comes out to help him suck from a breast or bottle, but it doesn't stay there when feeding time is over. In toddlers and children, tongue thrust occurs when the tongue is in an abnormal position. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry explains that the mouth may be open when at rest, while the front teeth may protrude and speech may sound impeded. Robert M. Mason, DMD, PhD at Doctor B For Kids, points out that the condition may also indicate allergies, enlarged tonsils or adenoids. These reactions cause a constricted throat cavity, so the tongue moves forward to make breathing easier.
Tongue Thrust Effects
Tongue thrust isn't harmful in young babies and has no long-term effects, provided that the reflex goes away as your child gets older. Losing tongue thrust is a normal part of baby development and a sign that your baby is more prepared for weaning. Nonetheless, if the tongue remains forward in the mouth or pushes out when swallowing as he grows, the effects are fairly diverse. Pediatric Dentistry of Glen Falls suggests they can include poor teeth alignment and a lisp when speaking.
Time for Action
Consulting a dentist or pediatrician about tongue thrust is usually unnecessary for a young baby, but there are some signs you can look for in older babies. The Intermountain Primary Children's Medical Center advises that symptoms of abnormal tongue thrust include the tongue resting in the wrong position, prolonged sucking, open resting lips and difficulty chewing food. Pediatric Dentistry of Glen Falls highlights other signs as well, such as breathing through the mouth, oral sores and chapped, cracked lips from frequently licking them. If your older baby or toddler shows any of these signs, take him to see a dentist or pediatrician.
Losing Baby Tongue Thrust
Tammy Roberts states that most babies lose baby tongue thrust reflex between four and six months of age. When food is placed on your baby's tongue or lips, the tongue doesn't come forward to push the food away, so he can take it in more easily. Losing the tongue thrust reflex ultimately means the baby is growing up and ready to start soft, pureed food. General dental health care should continue as normal, including regularly cleaning the teeth as soon as they erupt with a toothpaste specially formulated for infants, such as My First Colgate™ Infant & Toddler Toothpaste.
Babies are precious, and it's natural to seek reassurance that behavior affecting their teeth, speech and eating is normal. Baby tongue thrust usually means your baby is healthy and developing well. If you have concerns, a pediatrician or dentist can conduct a gentle examination that puts your mind at ease.